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How Chuck Berry defined a generation of rock ‘n’ roll

March 19, 2017 at 5:29 PM EDT
Chuck Berry, the legendary musician who helped define rock ’n’ roll, died on Saturday at the age of 90. Music historian Alan Light joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss Berry’s life and his influence on music.
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IVETTE FELICIANO, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND CORRESPONDENT: With songs like” Johnny B. Goode,” Chuck Berry helped define rock ‘in roll, building blocks for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, and many more. Born in St. Louis in 1926, Berry taught himself to play guitar and fused the sounds of blues and country, creating a new sound and lyrics that appealed to black and white audiences alike, a rare feat for a black artist in the 1950s.

And he spoke to changing attitudes about race and sex among teens with songs like “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” Signed by Chess Records in 1955, his first hit was “Maybellene.” Over the next decade, Berry wrote the hits “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Day”, “No Particular Place To Go,” “Nadine,” and “Back in the USA”.

He was famous for improvising on stage, and the owner of the St. Louis Club Blueberry Hill, where Berry performed will into his 80s, says his guitar playing was revolutionary.

JOE EDWARDS: Chuck Berry made the guitar a star. He took it from a rhythm background instrument into playing behind his head, and he intuitively choreographed the first great rock and roll stage moves. I mean, just on his own, whether he was playing it behind his head, between his legs.

FELICIANO: John Lennon once said if you tried to give rock ‘n’ roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry, and Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards once confessed he’d stolen every guitar lick from him. Richards gave the induction speech when Berry was among the first class inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame.

Berry performed at the White House and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

And then there was this tribute: when NASA launched the unmanned Voyager I spacecraft in 1977, “Johnny B. Goode” was the one rock song included among recordings that would explain music on earth. Berry was set to release an album of new songs, entitled “Chuck,” later this year.

As news of his death spread, hometown fans gathered around his statue St. Louis’ Delmar Loop to mourn.

HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: For more on the life and influence of Chuck Berry, I’m joined here in the studio by musical journalist Alan Light. He wrote today’s “New York Times” article, “15 Essential Chuck Berry Songs”, and has also been a writer for “Rolling Stone” and editor of “Spin” and “Vibe” Magazines, and a music correspondent for NPR.

Thanks for joining us.

ALAN LIGHT, JOURNALIST: Thank you, Hari.

SREENIVASAN: The significance for Chuck Berry, let’s say for someone who doesn’t follow rock ‘n’ roll and the history of it — why is Chuck Berry such an important figure?

LIGHT: Well, in the — if you are looking at the history of rock ‘n’ roll, it’s impossible to overstate the significance of what Chuck Berry accomplished. I mean, more than anybody, this was the guy who really defined and staked out what rock ‘n’ roll would become. He defined it as a style that you know in which the guitar would be the prominent instrument, in which the lyric concerns of cars and girls and adolescents, would be the focus of where these songs were going to go.

Listen, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards met or their friendship was based on, you know, one of them seeing the other on the train, carrying a Chuck Berry record. And it is — it’s not even just the straight line from Chuck Berry to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, but all of them have stated over and over again that they wouldn’t — they would never be — they would never have done what they did without the work that he did first.

SREENIVASAN: You know, Bruce Springsteen said today in a tweet, “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived.” That’s coming from a person who knows a thing or two about writing.

LIGHT: About songwriting. Yes, I mean, in the end there were so many things that Chuck Berry did that were revolutionary. But ultimately, it is the song writing I think that perseveres, and it will stand above all — his eye for detail, his ear for language, the way that he put words and phrases together. You know, Bob Dylan called him the Shakespeare of rock ‘n’ roll and —

SREENIVASAN: Again, high praise from someone who knows a thing or two —

LIGHT: Who knows a thing or two. But knows a thing or two, you know, many lessons of which he learned from Chuck Berry. This was not just stupid throwaway teenage music. It had that spirit and it that freedom, but it also had a depth and a resonance, that’s the reason that these songs sustained 50, 60 years later.

SREENIVASAN: And he brought a certain attitude to the table and to the performance as well.

LIGHT: Well, absolutely. I mean, he was unapologetic. He was — you know, he was a showman. He was a performer. He was somebody who was a proud black man at a time when that was a challenging thing to be in mainstream entertainment, who could write a song like “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” that was, you know, a little bit coded but not that coded in speaking about, you know, racial divisions and affinities in this country.

SREENIVASAN: He was also pretty savvy in marketing his music pretty early on, giving, what, deejays co-writing credits?

LIGHT: He’d sort of picked up early on that he was getting burned by the way that these things were being handled. You know, “Maybellene” was his first big hit. And he discovered when the song came that the songwriting credit was given to him and to Alan Freed, who was the biggest rock ‘n’ hall deejay at the time, and to a guy that the record label owner basically owed a favor to.

And so, for his first hit that he had, he was receiving a third of the proceeds. Well, you know, Chuck Berry didn’t suffer fools much and went into a very defensive business posture from there. This was somebody who insisted on full cash payment in his hand before he would go on a stage. Famously would show up, for a gig, go into the office, count the money, when he had it in hand, pick up the guitar, go out on stage, but not before then. And he really organized a career that was sort of based on trusting no one and, you know, having seen the effects of, you know, illicit or at least questionable business practices early on. It really shaped the way that he approached his career moving forward.

SREENIVASAN: All right. Alan Light, thanks so much.

LIGHT: Thank you.

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